What is the basic question of politics at the national level today? Should we agree that it is a question about the type of person(s) who should rule? Or the type of the system which we should create if we agree that the current system is so corrupt and looks so tyrannical. In other words, can we rationally think that the executive powers vested in Presidency will be used wisely by ‘a wise man to come’? After all, are all our people wise enough to elect such a wise man, if he is around us? Therefore the basic question of politics, today, would be about the system that should rule? And not ‘who should or would rule?’ On the other hand, how possible it is for us to reform this rotten system, which can easily corrupt ‘wise people into despots’, unless we can guarantee peoples active participation which should be defined something more than the normal voting behaviour of them aimed only at a replacement of leaders. For a system change a majority is not enough but the majority’s victory has to accompany a large scale people’s movement that can struggle for reforms with the people and against all other elements that will possibly stop at the green light of power, or against the forces that will come to thwart the struggle for reforms.
Ideally, the rulers should get into institutions which they themselves cannot define according to their whims and fancies. We have so far failed to create such a system which is well balanced at all levels of the government, namely, the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. Today, Sri Lanka’s democracy cannot properly function at all, at all these three levels, because the Presidency is not balanced and is the single most powerful institution, while other institutions remain basically impotent. The challenge before us therefore is not only about how or with what forces we can defeat a regime which has already turned despotic due to the system’s loopholes, but turning the majority who would elect the alternative President into a large scale mass movement for reforms; because such a movement has just begun to grow and has a long way to go. The ultimate goal is not a victory for the common candidate, but victory for a common aspiration, a better system and corruption free government.
True, no political Realist will believe that after the elections the momentum for creating a large scale mass movement for democracy will further remain; above all there is no guarantee for such reforms from a party like the UNP whose leadership is half-heartedly united and eager to grab power at any cost. The UNP’s internal power struggle is at the moment not publicly displayed, but at the possible victory or unexpected defeat of the common candidate the UNP’s strategy could be possibly upturned creating rift in its fragile unity. With all these odds within, the common candidate, common agenda and movement for amassing common people’s active involvement for political reforms in the country should march forward.
Unless the collective effort of civil society and political parties is to grow into a large scale mass movement, legitimacy for a proper system change is difficult to be earned easily. Because there are many elements which are making strong attempts with all available means to prevent this becoming a people’s movement and deny the democratic reforms for the public. Therefore, the common candidate’s campaign for democracy should be translated immediately into a common man’s struggle against tyranny and for freedom. Because, any common candidate is no common candidate, if the common people do not clearly grasp the common agenda and actively represent it. Therefore the common candidate should be brought down to earth and made an organic part of people’s movement for democracy and freedom, for sustainable political reforms. Putting only the entire weight of one or two parties into common candidate movement without making it a larger struggle of the people would only lead to another battle for Presidency but not for broader social and political transformation.
Democracy is about people’s power, and hence the real aspirations of the people should be democratically represented through the constitution. In the absence of a large scale movement of people, a movement which can truly represent the people and which is powerful enough to make the despotic rulers feel that the system they exploit for self-interest with so much of power is not what the people have wanted, the election of another President would have less meaning for the public. The strategy for winning the election cannot necessarily be the strategy that would guarantee the support of absolute majority for transforming the system. The slogans of system transformation and the constitutional changes therefore have to be voiced by the people, not by a minority of intellectuals or any other element which can rationally read and react to the political dynamics. Today, the JVP among other forces has to a certain extent grasped this reality of elections and is waging a struggle to awake the masses for reforms instead of contesting for power; and they have asked the people to choose the most democratic alternative too. That request itself is a real a test to know the pulse of an electorate which has been brainwashed of racist propaganda during and after the war. The people of this country, especially its majority, now have got to display if they are really racist or not and like to see democratic reforms or not. If they decide that tyranny is better than democracy, it will be a real frustration for all progressive elements, and it will lead to more external interventions for regime changes as happened in other parts of the world. We need to try and avoid such external interventions as much as possible for regime changes, as the JVP is rightly doing now, and bring the people to protest tyranny by our own initiatives and create a larger movement without being too late.
Only a people’s movement that genuinely stand for transforming this system can guarantee its end and reform it by restoring people’s power and defeat all elements of power leading to political despotism. In reality, we have a challenge today to guarantee that the current opposition and civil society forces will not stop their resistance until they have got the system changed into a more democratic one. The need for transforming the character of the corrupt system should be finally expressed as the need of the people. If not, as some scholars have argued, there would be endless conflicts and coups by various elements to secure power in future. Only a genuine people’s movement can silence all such selfish attempts at grabbing power with a few moves in the political chess game. The best strategy for the opposition and those who struggle to change the system for Executive Presidency is to rally people’s power as much as possible, because, ultimately, it is the people who should create the Constitution and not any other external or internal actor(s) who cannot secure the real power of the people.
These are really challenging times for the opposition and civil society. The people are not yet awakened to the slogans that the Facebook community and the Colombo based political circles desirously discuss on political reforms. Therefore if somebody thinks that by just defeating the existing despotic regime one can easily transform this system; we have to think that history is wrong. Because many of the leaders previously including the incumbent President himself promised to reform this despotic institution called the Executive Presidency, but everyone failed or did not take it as a real necessity of the people. Because there was no sustained movement of people behind such promises and they just became empty signifiers which the powerful could give any meaning to cover up their greediness to keep them more and more powerful.
Then it is reasonable to think, even if we know that the General Secretary of the SLFP has a background of a socialist, and he talks about Gandhi, Nehru and Mandela etc., that the systemic reforms would somehow be delayed or forgotten under the existing circumstances in the absence of a constantly struggling force for them. The possibility of politics mostly is that the good intentions cannot be easily transformed into good actions, because power is constituted locally and externally with the support of many elements – the bureaucrats, judiciary, military, businessmen and the charismatic power of the ruler itself. Therefore, the opposition and civil society has confronted a severe challenge of transforming a possible victory of the common candidate into a possible victory for the people.
By very simple calculations one can predict that under a free and fair election the common candidate is going to defeat the incumbent. It is our calculation that it would be very easy for the common candidate to cross the magic number of 50% plus one vote with the support of the minority and the disgruntled SLFPers, if the UNP can get at least 35% of the rural and semi urban Sinhala Buddhist votes. If the incumbent President wants to win at any cost, there should likely to be a game of enormous violence and more deceptive practices to capture the rural and semi-urban Sinhala Buddhist majority with all kinds of promises in order to secure the 50% plus one vote from that section only.
The common candidate too being a hardcore Buddhist, a Communist, non-racists, peace lover, and, after all, who will favour a welfare state is definitely can appeal to many sections of the voters; but can that ‘many’ be the force which will support the reforms? Can it not be the Trojan horse of the UNP to get back into power? Can Wickremesinghe guarantee that his deputy leaders will support or at least they will actively campaign for the common candidate? All these questions cannot be answered with ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions. But one thing is sure that the political parties will always turn to get power as it is their self-interest to do so. Therefore the change that we see in the UNP and other parties who are trying to get into power through the common candidate has to be real, and genuine. Real and genuine, that the UNPers should come to roads and join force with the JVP and other civil society movements for reforming the Presidency and not act contrarily to aspirations of the common agenda.
The political reality under the Executive President in Sri Lanka has been that the more powerful is the institution the more repressive the rule is. All the Presidents who came to power since JR ended becoming despots (perhaps except for D.B. Wijetunga’s short sprint). We can never say that the people elected the wrong man or a despot, but the truth has been that the good person they elected always ended up becoming the wrong person or the man who should never have been allowed to rule us.
Today the opposition political parties and many civil society movements in Sri Lanka have some how come to the realization that the Executive Presidency should be abolished or at least its despotic character has be tamed through reforms that the country wants to get in order to guarantee the future of its democracy. For long now we have kept losing the entire meaning of democracy and added locally developed vulgar meanings to it, creating a mockery of it. Democracy is only available now for anything or anyone that supports the tyranny and not for those elements to oppose tyranny. The political friends who dine at night with leaders become traitors and terrorists the following day morning if they deicide stand for what they believe as democracy. Therefore the people’s power is needed to reform the system and the people need to be awakened for that noble endeavour.